Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Monica Atkinson: Survivor!

My name is Monica Atkinson and I was a student at Hephzibah House from June 1981 to September 1982.

I was raised in a Christian "dysfunctional" home if that makes sense at all. My mother raised me primarily as a "single mother." I was the oldest of 5 children and the only girl in the bunch. My mother had become a member of a "non-denominational" church that consisted of a very small congregation. The pastor was very strange and when I look back, had all the attributes of a "cult" leader.

I was 15 when we began attending this church. Needless to say, I had begun my typical "teenage" rebellion. Actually I don't believe I was really that bad, but my mother sought advice from our "so-called preacher." Little did I know, this advice would be making plans to send me to a "girl's home" in Winona Lake, Indiana.

I wasn't aware of the plans being made for my going to Hephzibah House. The night before I left, I remembered getting up in the middle of the night and noticed my mother doing something with my clothes. I had no reason to suspect anything at that point, so while it was strange, I didn't question her and went back to bed. She came in early in the morning, woke me up and told me to get dressed. They didn't tell me where I was going, but when I went into the living room, my pastor and another deacon were at our house. I knew something was up! I started to throw a fit, but found out quickly they were prepared for that. There was no way out. They took me to the airport and my mother and I got on the plane at which time she told me where I was going. I had in my mind that I would get there and run away. (Little did I know... there would be no way out!)

When we arrived at Hephzibah House, I recall Ms. Kagin and Heather being there as well as Ron Williams. They took my things, sat us down in the "blue room," prayed with my mother and I, and my mother was escorted out. Thus began my Hephzibah House journey. I will never forget the "lock" of the door that signified there was no way out. The prayer that Ron Williams prayed with my mother and I included something about my mother's disobedience by being "divorced." I couldn't believe my mother was going for this!

I have always been a very strong willed child, even from birth! But something in me knew that rebellion was not going to bring about the results I was wanting. I really had never seen anything like it. They went through everything I had and took almost all of it. Heather watched me change my clothes and gave me uniforms to put on. They were the ugliest things I had ever seen... ( I was quite the fashion diva even at 15!) There was absolutely no individuality allowed!

They told me I could make a list and send it to my mom for things I needed. On this list I put tampons or pads that I recall... I was told that I would not be needing them.. ??? I did not understand. I had one period about a week after I got to Hephzibah House so why wouldn't I need pads or tampons? I had regular periods from the age of 13... Ms. Saylor just smirked and told me that none of the girls had periods while they were there... and that was it. She was right! I didn't have another period the entire time I was there.

The initial adjustments were excruciating! I was a healthy girl when I went to Hephzibah House. I wasn't "fat" by any means, but healthy. Probably a size 8 or 9. However, they immediately put me on 1/2 portions and I thought I was literally going to starve to death! Not to mention we were on this exercise regimine that was very difficult. We had to jog 2 miles plus a day and exercise for an hour doing various jumping jacks, leg exercises, situps etc. I lost about 40 pounds while at Hephzibah House and was a size 0 when I went home.

Aside form the exercise and diets, we had to adjust to perfection or else! We were assigned work duties for everything from wrinkles in our bedmaking, to leaving things out, to looking in the wrong direction. It was a major adjustment for me and one I did not do well with. If we accumulated more work duties than we could work off in a day (2), we would be paddled if at the end of the day we had more than 30 work duties.

This paddling was like nothing I had ever experienced. I would lie away in my bed "awaiting my turn" while I could hear the screams of the girls going before me. When my name was called, I would go down to the "blue room," I would have to lie down on the floor face down. They would lift my night gown up...One of the staff would straddle my back and hold my arms down, another would get at the end of my feet and hold them down while another would take the board (about 2 inches thick and 4 inches wide and I don't remember exactly how long, but long) and I don't know how many times they would hit me, but I can remember I had never experienced anything so painful.

This went on night after night, despite my trying so hard not to have more than 30 work duties. After the first couple of paddlings, I had blood blisters on my rear and bruises beyond what I can describe. The humiliation, the pain, the utter hopelessness of this practice was very depressing. But I didn't dare show that emotion...

This place tried to take every bit of dignity that we had. Our self esteem was attacked from any angle in the name of "humility." WE couldn't go to the bathroom in peace, we were timed even in bathing. I watched other girls suffering also. Some from medical neglect, others just like me...sheer emotional torture. We were not allowed to console each other. It was extreme brain washing and mind control. Since I left and have gotten older have I come to understand how cults operate and this is their number one tactic! I remember just feeling like there was no hope.

We were required to curl our hair for Sunday morning services. We had foam rollers and roller our hair on Saturday night. Fortunately my hair curled easily, but there were several girls who had very fine hair and were in constant fear of being paddled for "rebellion" if their hair did not curl for services.

Our mail was censored both coming and going, our phone calls were monitored (6 minutes every 2 weeks), there was no way to let anyone know what was going on. My mother came to visit during a Thanksgiving celebration where all the parents came and I was warned before she came that I was not allowed to speak to here where noone could hear me. I couldn't go to the bathroom with her no nothing... still a hopeless situation.

Girls would come and go... but when they went, we couldn't say their name anymore. I remember there was no way to please some of the staff. I lived in fear and I believe some of them thrived on that... not just from me but from all of us. We were subjected to some of the most evil tactics. We had to behead chickens, pluck them and eat them almost the same night. The same with ducks and rabbits. I just wasn't used to that. We were forced to eat liver, hearts, etc. when I could barely choke it down! It was horrible, but I knew if I didn't finish it, I would be eating it for the next meal.

Work duties were graded on a "more than perfection" scale. If there was one piece of grit on the floor, we failed and didn't get credit for what we had done...

I could go on and on about the cruel and unusual punishments, the torture both physically and mentally but I think enough is said in that respect. The bottom line is that I believe that in the end, there is justice and God does reserve justice for those bringing harm to "God's children."

The night before I left Hephzibah House, I was desperate.. I went into the cedar closet and cried out to God... I had no idea at that moment, my mother and Ron Williams were having a "heated" conversation regarding my staying until I was 18. My mother refused to commit to my staying any longer than the 15 months, and as a result, Ron Williams told her that they were going to send me home. Praise God! I was sent home the next morning. I didn't get to say goodbye, didn't get to see anyone before I left, just called to the office and that was it. I was sent home. I knew I had been delivered. It felt like a dream!
Needless to say it was a "huge" adjustment after coming home. I started my period again about 2 months after coming home. Things eventually settled down for me, I went back to school and life went on.

Hephzibah House could have destroyed every bit of faith I had in God. Instead, what my time at Hephzibah House taught me was a very good lesson in what true Christianity is about. It's all about God and the Word of God! People will always disappoint me, but God never will. It's because of Hephzibah House that I came to understand that God makes "all things work together for good!" I believe that God has taught me who HE is through the trials I've been through including Hephzibah House. Just like Joseph and all the injustice he endured... but in the end God had a plan for his life.. just as He has for each of us...

I do believe that the Williams' are deceived and I don't believe that any child should have to endure what we endured at Hephzibah House. My prayer is that the right people are enlightened to what is going on in places like Hephzibah House (and HH itself) and put laws in place that will prevent this kind of abuse.

God bless you all!